“Talent is not a thing; it’s a process,” is the argument made in David Shenk’s book The Genius in All of Us. For years, the nature versus nurture debate has simmered, with most of us coming out on the side of nature at times. Since psychologists Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray warned that our society was increasingly becoming stratified between those who have the genes for intelligence and high cognitive functioning, and those who are unfortunate in that they inherited genetically the lot of mediocre intelligence and only average cognitive functioning, it has been widely accepted that there are those who are “gifted” or “talented” and then the rest of us.
But, what if, genetics is more complicated than that? What if our talents and giftedness are not solely dictated by those magical genes we carry inside us? Shenk’s book tries to provide such an argument by pointing out a new “dynamic model” of genetics called “interactionalism.” In this model of genetics, rather than being blueprints that dictate who or what we become, genes are more like “knobs and switches” that respond to a wide variety of factors both internal and external. According to Shenk, these factors include things like: nutrition, hormones, sensory input, intellectual activity, and even other genes. The old genetics model basically says that genes come first and influence what we are and what we become. The interactionalism model says it all begins with interaction with these internal and external factors which determine how genes express themselves.
This model of genetics is intriguing to me as an educator. Like Shenk, it makes me ask the question, “What if no one is genetically doomed to mediocrity?” Shenk clearly qualifies this model of genetics by saying that it doesn’t necessarily mean that we can become whatever we want to become. We are still limited within both environmental factors and genetics, but he gives us a perfect analogy in his book to describe our genetic differences. He says, “Our genetic differences aren’t straitjackets holding us in place; they are bungee cords waiting to be stretched and stretched.” Perhaps we as educators can consider ourselves these “stretchers of bungee cords” in some fashion. Our job is to find a way to tap into and use what Shenk calls “Positive Environmental Triggers” to pull all we can academically from our students. Shenk gives a list of some of these positive environmental triggers in his book:
- Speaking to children early and often
- Reading early and often
- Nurturance and encouragement
- Setting high expectations
- Embracing failure
- Encouraging what Carol Dweck calls a “growth mindset”
David Shenk’s book and the ideas of genetic interactionalism are definitely something we as educators should ponder. What if our school policy is actually holding back students who could otherwise demonstrate a level of talent or giftedness of which we were not aware? What if there are missed opportunities to “stretch” students beyond the achievement boundaries many have set for them? I think we’ve all known those occasional teachers who seem to miraculously do just that. They get students to do things that no one else has ever been able to do. Just maybe, these teachers actually redefine the word “gifted” by what they do with kids.